When a conductor takes a Tchaikovsky ballet into the concert hall there is often an emphasis on the symphonic rather than the choreographic, as the music is liberated from the need to accommodate dancers. Santtu-Matias Rouvali, the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor Designate, took a different approach with a focus on the balletic in this Sunday matinee at the Royal Festival Hall.
The suite of Swan Lake excerpts was reasonably full (42 minutes) and an interesting selection presumably made by Rouvali himself. The scene-setting Introduction was eliminated and Rouvali jumped straight into the famous First Act Waltz given with great swing and sway, although it’s unlikely anyone could have danced to it. Similarly, the three First Act pas de trois items had extremes of tempo from very slow to absurdly fast and the Dance of the Goblets polonaise had real rhythmic lift. The woodwinds provided exquisite and witty detail for the Dance of the Cygnets. Rouvali did only two of the four national dances from Act Three and whilst the Spanish Dance seemed strangely lacking in spirit the Neapolitan Dance had energy and humour. The last scene had breathless drive and cumulative power with Wagnerian splendour from the brass. The Philharmonia played very well throughout and solos from Timothy Rundle’s swan-signifying oboe and Heidi Krutzen’s harp were worthy of particular attention. Not everything worked but it was a reading of vivacity and colour. Conductors in the recent past such as Valery Gergiev and Gennady Rozhdestvensky have made successful concert items out of Tchaikovsky’s ballets and it would be good if Rouvali continued that tradition. I‘d love to hear him do The Sleeping Beauty.
Sergei Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto was originally performed whilst he was still a student but he later undertook a radical revision, particularly involving a re- structuring of the finale. What we now know as the First Concerto comes mainly from a later period between the composition of the Third and Fourth Concertos. Both the orchestration and form are less complex than those of the mature concertos, with an obvious debt to Greig but it can still be a satisfying work as it proved in the hands of Nikolai Lugansky. Lugansky is a poetic interpreter of Rachmaninov who is rarely barnstorming. Rouvali and the Philharmonia delivered the opening fanfares with ringing authority and Lugansky was lithe and agile with an almost improvisatory quality in the opening solo and a touch of steel in the first movement cadenza. He created a sense of rhapsodic introspection in the Andante and brought freshness to the finale’s syncopations, aided by a propulsive accompaniment. Rouvali and the Philharmonia were attentive in support with some fine-grained string playing.
In Rouvali’s reading Stravinsky’s Fireworks, which opened the concert, clearly looked forward to the world of The Firebird with its quirky harmonic twists and transparent orchestration.